Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Panama Canal

Living la vida loca on the canal
Locomotive and Happy operator
Locomotive with some line handlers hitching a ride
Rowing out for the lines for the ship. Second series of locks
The locomotives use a cog system to trave forward and back
Dawn on the Panama Canal
Filled to the brim (notice the walkway across the top of the lock) Going through a lock as seen from the Pilot Deck. Our cargo in the foreground. Silver Lining being lifted in the chamber ahead of us.
Life is tough here on the Canal

A lock chamber
A locomotive at work with two positioning cables
An example of how high the lift is Canal at night
The Panama Canal was a little anticlimactic after traveling around the world. A delay in San Diego caused us to lose our time slot, so we had to remain at anchor, outside the canal, from noon on Monday May 5, until 4:30 A.M. on Wednesday May 7. Our pilot, due to arrive at 3:00 A.M. on the Wednesday, was characteristically late. We were further delayed by the late arrival of twenty one (this is not a typographical error, I counted them) line men who came on board to handle the steel cables that attach us to locomotives which help us transit the canal. Mal and I had set our alarm for 3:30 A.M. We had lots of time to read about the history of the canal.
The Spanish considered a passageway through the isthmus as early as 1534.
However it was not until 1879 that the passage was considered an engineering possibility. A private French company spent10 long years, suffering the loss of many lives caused by disease and labor difficulties, before declaring bankruptcy. In 1894 another attempt was made, again by a French company, only to suffer the same fate.
In 1904 a third attempt was made, this time by the U.S. The canal was successfully completed, but the cost was high: 10 years, 75,000 laborers and 400 million dollars. The canal opened to traffic on august 15, 1914.
In 1997 the U.S. started to increase the Panamanian participation in the operation of the canal and on December 31, 1999 the Republic of Panama acquired the full responsibility and ownership of the canal.
There are three sets of locks in the canal, two on the Pacific side, and one on the Atlantic. Each set of locks has six chambers, arranged in pairs and operating independently. Ships can pass either way in parallel chambers. Each chamber accommodates ships up to 106 feet wide, with drafts no deeper than 39.5 feet. This is small relative to the size of many of today’s super sized freighters and cruise ships. Consequently construction is ongoing to build a bigger and more economical system.
Finally, at approximately 5:00 A.M., and still in darkness, we started to inch our way toward the first set of chambers. It is a myth that ships are pulled through the system by locomotives. Not only did I check our wake several times, but I also asked the chief engineer. A humorous fellow at the best of times, he looked at me, cocked one eyebrow and asked, “Do you know how much we weigh?” Ships are actually moved forward by an initial thrust of their own power. The pilots know exactly how much power and when to apply it. The locomotives task is to keep the ships precisely in the middle of the channel. The expertise of the pilots is such that most ships will have coasted to a stop by the time they reach the end of the chamber. However, just in case, the locomotives are also prepared to act as a precautionary brake.
Our bow was well into the first chamber when I spied a small rowing boat, with two oarsmen, bobbing precariously between our ship and the starboard dock. This was a line boat. A line was tossed from our stern to the boat. The line was tied to the bights of two steel cables, attached at their other ends to a locomotive. The cables were then pulled on board. A similar operation was taking place to port. Eventually we ended up with four locomotives, each attached to us by two cables, making eight cables in all. Thus we proceeded through the first three chambers, waiting patiently for the water to fill and raise us to each new level. The same procedure was used at each lock. We passed through 6 chambers on the Pacific side of the canal, but only three on the Atlantic side. The elevations and descents were correspondingly greater here. I have no idea why this is. I suspect that the incline up the mountain is gentler on the Pacific side.
The transit through the canal system usually takes 8 to 10 hours. Ours took approximately 15 hours. I suspect that we, along with six other ships, were fitted into a small window of opportunity that occurred in the system. We spent an unusually long time anchored in Lake Gatun, a large body of water just west of the Atlantic cut.
We started our transit in complete darkness, passed through the day, only to end in complete darkness again. Perhaps it was the length of the passage, along with the prolonged waiting periods, that eroded some of our initial excitement.
Not to worry. Soon we were on our way to Galveston.


Marian McClements said...

Hi Anne Marie!
Greetings from Northern Ireland. I just came across your fantastic blog- two years later! I really enjoyed reading it and seeing the photos. Dr Johnston would be proud of you!! I was in your form at CHS. Last time we met was at a bus stop in Belfast in the 60s. A magazine came in from QUB recently and your picture was on the front cover. I spent three years in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s and had a few holidays in SE Asia.
Kindest regards,

Anne Marie said...

Hi, Marian

I don't know how my picture got on a QUB magazine. Can you give me more details.

I'm glad you liked my blog. I rarely check it these days.

Anne Marie

Marian McClements said...

Hello again!
The photo was on the front of a circular re the Golden Jubilee of classes of 1954-64.You are in a group of six girls,all in white dresses.I tried to scan the photo but it came out very badly so I rang the office at Queen's and a lovely girl there emailed a better one to me. Apparently another copy is on display in a stairwell in the building! Would you like me to forward the email?
I could probably attach it to Facebook, but not without your permission! Best wishes, Marian.